Our Collection

At the Institute’s core is the Gilder Lehrman Collection, one of the great archives in American history. More than 85,000 items cover five hundred years of American history, from Columbus’s 1493 letter describing the New World through the end of the twentieth century.

Madison, James (1751-1836) to James Monroe

High-resolution images are available to schools and libraries via subscription to American History, 1493-1943. Check to see if your school or library already has a subscription. Or click here for more information. You may also order a pdf of the image from us here.

Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC01096.01 Author/Creator: Madison, James (1751-1836) Place Written: Washington, D.C. Type: Letter signed Date: 31 March 1807 Pagination: 5 p. 25 x 20 cm. Order a Copy

Opposes a British order made in Council on 7 January 1807 prohibiting neutral nations from trading with France, which Madison deems a retaliatory "violation of those rules of law and of justice which are binding on all nations." Discusses the scope and injustice of this order at length. Madison claims this letter, along with other materials provided to Monroe, who was serving as minister plenipotentiary of the United States, contained the information necessary for Monroe to make "representations to the British Government...in order to produce a proper revision of the order." Instructs Madison that if Napoleon's Berlin decree will not apply to U.S. trade, then he should "insist on an immediate revocation of the [British] order." Also notes that he sent a copy of President Jefferson's proclamation suspending non-importation, an indicator of "amicable policy towards Great Britain" and a desire to negotiate a resolution. The British order was a response to Napoleon's Berlin decree, and led to the Embargo Act of 1807 (and eventually to the War of 1812). Sent with a clerical copy of Madison's letter to David Erskine, British Minister Plenipotentiary (see GLC01096.02).

Signer of the U.S. Constitution.
Opportunities for American merchants and shippers to make quick profits in Europe evaporated in 1805 when an English court ruled (in the Essex case) that U.S. ships could not carry cargo from French colonies to France. Britain then began to blockade American ports, intercept American ships, and confiscate cargoes bound for France.
In 1806 and 1807, Napoleon tried to ruin Britain's economy by cutting off its trade with continental Europe. His "Continental System" ordered the seizure of any neutral ship that visited a British port, paid British duties, or allowed itself to be searched by a British vessel.
Britain retaliated by issuing an Order-in-Council forbidding trade with French ports and other ports under French control. U.S. shipping was caught in the crossfire. By 1807, France had seized 500 American ships and Britain a thousand.
The Order-in-Council was the brainchild of British abolitionist James Stephen (1758-1832), whose hidden agenda included an attack on illegal slave ships using the American flag as protection. Stephen understood that American ships supplied Caribbean slave colonies with provisions of all sorts and that ships engaged in the African slave trade were flying the American flag.
The following letters by Secretary of State James Madison condemns the British Order-in-Council as a violation of America's rights as a neutral nation.

Department of State
March 31, 1807
In my last letter of the 26 inst., I enclosed you a copy of one from Mr. Erskine, communicating the British order of Jany 7th and of my answer. Occurring circumstances and further reflection on that extraordinary measure produced a return to the subject and another letter was added to the first answer. A copy is enclosed with the same view which led to the last enclosure.
The more this order is examined the more unjustifiable it appears in its principle, the more comprehensive in its terms, and the more mischievous in its operation. In
The recitals prefacing the measure as communicated by Mr. Erskine in the order itself, and in the note of Lord Howick to you, there is a medly of motives for which a cause must be sounght either in the puzzle to find an adequate one, or in the policy of being able to shift from one to another according to the posture which the case may take. Whatever be the explanation, the order in relation to the United States at least, must ever remain with the candid and intelligent, a violation of those rules of law and of justice which are binding on all nations, and which the greatest nations ought to pride themselves most in honorable observing. Considered as a retaliation on the United States for permitting the injury done to Great Britain thro' their commerce, by the French decree, the order over and above the objections stated to Mr. Erskine subjects the British government to a change of the most striking inconsistency in first admitting that the decree gave a right to retaliate in the want only of a failure of the United States to control its operation as well as that such a failure along would justify a final refusal of the Treaty signed by its commissioners and then actually proceeding to retaliate before it was possible for the decision of the United States to be known or ever made.
If it be said, as is stated, that captures had commenced under the decree, the fact would be of little avail. Such occurrency could not have escaped anticipation, nor can the amount of them, under the present superiority of British power at sea, afford the slightest plea for the extensive and premature retaliation comprised in the order. A government valuing its honor and its character ought to have dreaded less the injury to its interest from the pillage committed by a few ? on neutral commerce, than the reproach or even the suspicion that a pretext was eagerly seized for unloosing a spirit, impatient under the restraint of neutral rights, and panting for the spoils of neutral trade. The British government ? not sufficiently reflect on the advantage which such appearance gave to her adversary, in the appeal they are both making to the judgment the interests and the sympathy of the world. If Great Britain wishes to be regarded as the champion of law, of right, and of order among nations, her example must support her pretensions. It must be a contrast to injustice and to obnoxious innovation. She must not turn the indignation of mankind from the violence of which she complains on one element to scenes more hostile to established principly on the element on which she bears sway. In a word she ought to recollect that the good opinion and good will of other nations and particularly of the United States is worth far more to her than all the wealth which her Navy covering as it does every sea, can plunder from their innocent commerce.
As to the scope of the order, it is evident that its terms comprehend not only the possessions of France and of her allies in Europe, but in every other quarter and consequently both in the West and in the East Indies. And as to the injury which, if the order be executed as it will be interpreted, by the British ? in the full extent of its literal meaning, will be brought on the commerce of the United States, an idea may be collected from the glance at it in the letter to Mr. Erskine. The enclosed statement of the amount of our exports to Europe and of the Proportion of them which not being destined to England may be food for the predatory order, will reduce the estimate to some precision. To make it still more precise hoever, it will be necessary on one hand to transfer from the proportion cleared for Great Britain as much as may have ? there only on its way to Continental Ports; and on the other to deduct the unconsiderable destination to Portugal, the Baltic, and the Austrian ports in the Mediterranean.

Having in your hands the materials which this communication will complete, you will be able to make whatever representations to the British Government you may deem expedient in order to produce a proper revision of the order. If it shall have been finally ascertained that the French decree will not be applied to the commerce of the U. States, you will of course insist on an immediate revocation of the order so far as it may have been applied to that commerce and if, as in that case the order can no longer be maintained on the principle of retaliation, the pretext of a blockade or of illegally in the trade as a coasting one, be substituted, you will be at no loss, for the grounds on which the order is to be combated and its revocation demanded.
Among the papers accompanying my last was a printed copy of the proclamation, suspending the non-importation out until December next. This measure of the President under any circumstances ought to be received as the effect of his amicable policy towards Great Britain. But when it is considered as having been taken with the British order of Jany 7th before him, and a measure subject to the stricture which have been made on it, it is the strongest proof that could be given of his solitude to smooth the path of negotiation and to secure a happy result to it and in this light you will be pleased on the proper occasion to present it.
I have the honor to remain with great respect & Consideration
Your most Ob. Ser.
James Madison
James Monroe Esq.
Minister Plenipotentiary of the U. States

Citation Guidelines for Online Resources